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Vultures' Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores

The following is an excerpt from Greg Palast's "Vultures' Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores." Click here to buy your copy.  AlterNet will publish part II of this excerpt tomorrow. 

There is a legend told among the Inupiat Alaskans who live above the Arctic Circle, “Etok Tames the Green People.” It goes like this: 

In the Old Days, as today, the peoples on the edge of the Arctic Sea killed whales. It’s just what they do. It’s what they eat. But the Green People didn’t like that, and so the Green People set out one day in their fancy-ass black powerboat to stop the people of the Arctic Sea from doing their whale killing thing. 

It was a long, long time ago in 1979. The elders tell us how the Green People showed up outside the Inupiat Native village of Kaktovik in their black powerboat and set out their stores of vegetables on the beach. The Green People only ate green food. The Green People then set off in their black powerboat on their blubber-saving mission, with a plan to block the Eskimo’s bidarka whaling ship. Quick as a Raven’s wink, they got lost in a fog bank and stuck in the ice sheet. Prepared, committed, and resourceful, the Green People set out their pup tents on the ice floe and slept, hoping for the fog to lift in the morning.

But they were not lost. The Inupiat of the Arctic Sea knew exactly where the Green People were. Etok, the great whale hunter, told his villagers to accept the gift of the Green People and take all their vegetables. Etok then told his people to be patient, and, elders say, they lit up some excellent weed, put on Bob Dylan tapes, and waited.

During the summer the sun never sets in the Inupiat land. It just rolls around the sky in a Circle. And under the gyrating sun, the Greens’ expensive boat, being black, absorbed the radiant heat, melted the ice holding it and drifted out into the endless Sea.

By three a.m., the wait was over, and the patient Eskimo leader told his people to go and retrieve the lost black boat, call the Coast Guard, and claim it as abandoned property.

In the morning, the Green People awoke, still in fog, and did not see their boat, their boat with their emergency radio and food. The Green People drifted on their block of ice, lost and doomed. Etok told his people not to move, that the Green People must “cry themselves out” and obtain the wisdom that comes with accepting your certain death by starvation, hypothermia, or polar bear.

The Inupiat of the Arctic Sea waited an entire day. Then another day and another day.

On the fourth day, Etok figured the Green People were now wise enough, hungry enough, and thirsty enough. He ordered his people to rescue them. “They are vegetarians,” the wise Etok explained to his people and ordered them to bring many buckets of mikiaq, fermented whale meat in congealed blood. The hungry Green People ate the whale, no longer giving a shit that it was some goddamned endangered species. The Inupiat told them it was not wise to enter the Native boats. The rescue party had brought along a filthy crude-oil barge for the frozen Green People to ride.

The Natives dumped the Green People at Dead Horse, where White People take petroleum from Prudhoe Bay. The Green People, whose lesson had been taught to them without their knowing, thanked the Inupiat for saving their lives. And from that day forward, Greenpeace protected the Natives’ right to kill whales as in the Old Days, and joined the Inupiat people in fighting their competitors, the commercial whalers or, as the Natives call them, “the fucking Japanese.” 

Etok is one bad-ass Eskimo. 


I didn’t have any trouble picking him out, even in the pumping lights of the Fairbanks strip club where we were supposed to meet: the leather-dark face, a wolverine pelt sewn into his parka collar with its vicious fangs still attached, and, around his neck, five huge claws of the last polar bear killed by his father. Eskimo bling.

While I’d heard that Eskimos kiss by rubbing noses, the look in Etok’s eyes suggested I wasn’t going to get the nose rub.

“Mr. Palast, we are the last of the Pleistocene people,” he told me. “It would be an honor to help you fuck up British Petroleum and fuck up your Queen, too.”

It was entirely appropriate for Etok, as a head of state, to address his concerns through me, a reporter for British government television, to his diplomatic equal, the Monarch of Windsor; though, as Etok would point out, his realm was larger than Britain, with more resources. And unlike England, Etok’s kingdom had never lost a war. I promised to carry his message back to Her Majesty.

In the fall of 2010, BP’s oil was still sloshing around the Gulf of Mexico. Where would BP strike next?

I was tired of reporting on disasters after the body count, after the oil hits the beach, after pipes explode, and after kids get cancer. I wanted to film a disaster before it happened.

So I took Ricardo, his cameras, and my dear Director James to the North. Just above the Arctic Circle, where British Petroleum and Shell Oil are sharpening their drill bits, ready to bite into the receding ice of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. For Big Oil, global warming is a profit center. The hole their hydrocarbons has punched in the ozone has opened up once ice-locked oil fields and tanker routes.

It’s a global warming bonanza for BP if they can just skooch a few sea mammals out of the way. The Beaufort Sea is the part of the Arctic Ocean that meets Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The “Wildlife” of the Refuge includes the Inupiat-speaking Eskimos, the whale hunters. BP would have to move the polar bears, the whales, and the whale hunters. But that means the landlord has to approve. That’s Etok. At least according to Etok.

Etok is at times the unofficial and at times the official sovereign of this polar territory, which is officially sovereign—except when it isn’t. The confusion results from the historical oddity that the Eskimo never surrendered to “America” but America pretended they did. There was never a war, so there was never peace nor a peace treaty. For Etok, the Inupiat’s Arctic remains a free republic under occupation—by the British. For the Eskimos of the oil-lush North Slope of Alaska, the BP and Shell logos are far more powerful than the American flag.

The first Eskimo movie star, Nanook of the North, died of starvation after he sold fur pelts for knives and candy to John Jacob Astor. Astor would resell them at Saks Fifth Avenue for thousands of dollars even in the 1920s. Etok has no sympathy for Nanook. Etok thinks Nanook used his knife on the wrong animals.

The Chief of Intelligence, Harry Lord, the one who sent me the invite to the Arctic, had given Etok my last book. The Leader, for whom preparation means survival, had highlights and notes on virtually every page.

Whether Etok trusted me or not, I don’t know. He certainly decided he could make use of me to issue his ultimatum to BP and the Queen’s ignorant subjects. Our television program, Dispatches, is carefully scanned by the UK’s ruling elite. If he could get me into these closed-off zones, and in return, I could get his story out, well, we had a deal.

The Inupiat leader ordered nonalcoholic brews for us and took us to a corner of the empty barroom turned away from the stage. While a drugged blond giantess shook her stuff, Etok explained his purpose and his rules for our next day’s travel to a Native-only town within his nation above the Arctic Circle. The big girl, feeling ignored, put on a long winter coat and sat down with us, nodding, as perplexed as we were. 


There was whale blubber everywhere, and whale bones big as taxicabs along the inexplicably long air strip, and huge blocks of whale fat in driveways and in backyards among busted ATVs and diesel-powered dogsleds. Giant hunks of whale meat were strewn in front of the stilt houses, with a dog tied up next to each pile. The dogs are tethered, kept out all day, in case a polar bear wanders in for a whale-meat snack. The dogs will bark long enough, before being eaten, to warn the families inside.

While bouncing in the back of the four-wheeler taking us from the “airport,” James spotted a whale carcass. It was on a sand spit about a mile offshore. James was hot to film it. That sure would wow the network even if our London studios ended up getting picketed by untamed greenies. Etok dropped us at the bunkhouse built for visiting white people. He took in James’s request to visit the carcass and said we would be escorted there in Akootchook’s boat. Akootchook is the local Deputy Chief. Akootchook, word came back, agreed to take us, but for now, the Chief was on a conference call with lawyers.

We had arrived right on the autumnal equinox, when endless day tips into endless night, and James fretted about losing the sunlight needed for filming. I knew enough to nap until further notice, and Rick quietly filmed lots of the icy emptiness.

James, seeing the precious daylight dying, asked Etok if he could tell the Chief to hurry up a bit.

Oh shit oh God no, James.


Well, I figured James had to get a taming sometime, so at least that was now out of the way. James sat quietly, head down . . . while I listened with great care to Intelligence Chief Harry Lord and the tale of “How Kaktovik Lost the Cold War.” 

In 1947, the U.S. Air Force told the Inupiat of Kaktovik to get the fuck out.

The U.S. military needed a big runway in case the Russians attacked America over the polar ice cap.

Kaktovik’s island was an interesting choice. You can fly a hundred miles in any direction from Kaktovik and you’ll find absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, the Air Force had to have that one single spot, the lone Eskimo village, within this vast emptiness. The Natives, by proving the location both geologically stable and weather-worthy, had placed a “steal me” sign on their homes.

Chief Akootchook, father of the current Chief Akootchook, sued to block the Natives’ expulsion.

The military responded with a beach landing, a kind of mini D-Day on ice. The United States Marines came ashore on the skinny peninsula at the island’s end. The invaders brought a bulldozer. Then, one by one, the GI’s earthmover pushed each and every Inupiat house into the Arctic Sea. It must have taken quite some time. There were more than a hundred homes on that land spit.

Kaktovik was more than a village to the Inupiat. It was their metropolis, the closest thing Eskimos had to a shopping mall, where Inuit from Can- ada traded with Alaskan Natives. They called it Barter Island. The Air Force nodded its head to history by giving the military’s new airport the identify- ing initials, BTI.

Akootchook still demanded a ruling from the courts. He got it. Unfortunately. The judge said the Natives of Kaktovik had to cease squatting on U.S. government property. It didn’t matter that the Inupiat had lived there for a few thousand years before the United States or its government existed. Well, that’s the fine print.

Some Natives remained, rebuilding, though on more treacherous shoreline. Then in 1954, the Air Force told the Natives to get off that land, too. America was building the world’s most powerful radar network, the DEW Line, to watch for the Soviet surprise missile attack.

The bulldozer went to work again and the Eskimos moved up the shore until 1961, when the Air Force told the Natives they had to move yet again. The Natives, the Air Force determined, were a “security risk.” The straggling crew of “security risks” picked up their whale guns and whalebone toys and moved again, for the last time, to the diminished little village I came to visit. 


“The Americans,” as Etok calls us, did not realize that the Battle of Kaktovik was far from over.

In 1969, four thousand miles to the south, in San Francisco Bay, the federal government owned another island, also beautiful and extraordinarily valuable.

Etok, with a group of a hundred Indians from the Lower 48, landed, heavily armed, on this bay isle, once the home of Alcatraz Penitentiary, and told the U.S. government to get off their property, Indian property. The Natives were prepared to die for it, but not alone. They made it clear that any American invaders would go with them.

How did the Eskimo Etok end up as a proud, if temporary, owner of Alcatraz Island?

He told me it started when, as a kid in the Arctic Slope town of Barrow, he would look out his window. He didn’t like what he saw: the still-unburied bones of Eskimos who had died in the great influenza epidemic of 1918. The flu killed just about all the Eskimos of Alaska as it did most Alaska Natives, an ethnic cleansing by virus.

The boy Etok grew into a teenage hell-raiser, drug taker, and heavy drinker with a brain fast as a locomotive and as powerful.

By his twenties, the locomotive of his genius and anger outran the booze and took him to the Lower 48, where he learned what he could of what he called The White Man’s Tools of Power, Crime, and Mystification: legislative lobbying, community organizing, international law, petroleum geology, political philosophy. As the original “chief of intelligence” for his Free Arctic Republic’s Eskimo insurgency, Etok slyly hooked himself into the invading army’s nervous system, from befriending the U.S. Senate’s Appropriations Committee leadership to slipping his way into Harvard University and the Kennedy family circle.

Etok had to take temporary leave from the Native occupation army on Alcatraz Island because he had his teaching gig at the University of California Berkeley to complete. For a final exam, Etok required his students to show up on a designated dock on San Francisco Bay. When they arrived, Professor Etok ordered them aboard a pirate craft to take them all to reinforce the Indians at the island prison.

The university was discomfited by Etok’s making a felony a required class assignment. The academic board also took issue with his failing any student who refused to board the ship and join the occupation. “I flunked every one of their racist asses,” Etok told me. The university fired him. The occupation of Alcatraz ended in 1970 when Richard Nixon ordered its invasion at about the same time he invaded Cambodia. But Etok’s group won, ending the U.S. policy of Termination and Relocation that had destroyed Kaktovik.

The ex’d professor returned to the North for the summer whale hunt and prepared for the next invaders: the British, who smelled oil at Prudhoe Bay. That same year, British Petroleum set out on a mission to grab control of the oil lying underneath the Natives, and to seize the pipeline route that would carry the oil through the Natives’ land to Valdez. Etok prepared himself for this trillion-dollar international chess match. Etok held the pipeline up for ransom. His uncle laid out several bear traps of lawsuits. They hired America’s top “Jew lawyers,” as he described them, including President Johnson’s personal attorney. Etok won the backing of powerful senators, and launched his own corporate battleship, founding the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. Etok was also savvy to the advice of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt: There is no power without state power. He created a new political entity, North Slope Borough County, the largest in the United States (and way larger than all of England). It was not quite national sovereignty, but it was a government recognized by the “Americans” under the comity clause of the U.S. Constitution,* with its own flag and power to make law.

Etok is still bitter over what he considered his meager winnings for the Eskimos in 1971: a deed to forty-four million acres of land, several billion dollars in no-bid contracts, oil royalties, and the multiplication of Eskimo power. A disappointment, but surely it must have been satisfying for Etok when the Inupiat of Kaktovik told the U.S. Air Force to get the hell off their Native property. Today, you cannot find any artifacts of the U.S. military occupation of Kaktovik. The Air Force had to remove all traces of their incursion except for the runway where the old village stood. Chief Akootchook needs the airfield to ship in goodies like Honda outboards for the whaleboat, high-speed Inter- net, and an easy way out and back for the Eskimos’ vacations to Hawaii.

Nevertheless, one modern trinket is banned from the Arctic Republic. Etok has rejected twenty-first-century weapons for the whale hunts. The explosives and rocketry used by those pigs, the Japanese commercial whalers, “destroy too much of the meat,” he told me. “You have to cut out all that toxic powder.” So, Etok and villagers all along the Slope still use the nineteenth- century shoulder gun and the charge-tipped harpoon. Herman Melville and Queequeg would feel quite at home on Etok’s hunting boat. 


Rick and a now-tamed James left the White Man’s Bunkhouse, to follow Etok, Intelligence Chief Harry Lord, and me to Chief Akootchook’s home on the shore of the Beaufort Sea, a fat appendage of the polar ocean. The Chief is an arctic Damien Hirst. When we got to the small stilt bungalow, we found his cellar full with a half dozen semi-frozen caribou and moose that he had chain- sawed in half. “If you leave the skin on, it cooks up real fresh.” I took his word for it.

I looked north into Nothing. This was the last house before the world comes to an end, my world, anyway. Akootchook’s next-door neighbor to the north was in Norway, herding reindeer. Etok had made contact with the Norwegians in their “backyard,” creating a circumpolar association of indigenous people. When Siberia’s Governor tried to block Russian Natives from joining, Etok paid the Russian pol $25,000 in cash. Apparently, Etok speaks Russian.

Akootchook offered us some alcohol-free beer, which he asked Mrs. Akootchook, in a gentle, nearly inaudible Inupiat, to bring for us. He introduced her as “Daisy,” her Bureau of Indian Affairs name, I assumed. But Etok, of course, wouldn’t “Daisy” her. He called her “Mutti.” Mutti had that small, round look of the cartoon Eskimo squaw, and I knew our director would be pleased with finding a recognizable stereotype. (Forgive us, Lord, for doing things the easy way.)

Daisy proudly showed me the artifacts she had gathered on the beach, the remains of the drowned houses of the old village. Junk that had been cluttering up sunken closets in the drowned homes had floated ashore, some of it a hundred or five hundred years old: arrow shafts, bone bracelets, and brass reindeer bells.

Reindeer like Santa? Yes, said Akootchook, three thousand head roamed here until the dynamite blasts for the seismic mapping for the oil chased them into the protection of the bigger, stronger herd of caribou. The caribou bulls humped all the female reindeer and put an end to the delicate lineage—the only known case of mammals screwed to extinction.

No one was going to fornicate a whale into extinction, but a little hydro- carbon in the water would chase them away. Whales don’t like swimming in crude any more than you would, and they won’t put up with it. If that happens, if the whales leave, kiss Kaktovik good-bye and about every Eskimo village on the North Slope.

This past year, the whaling sucked. Kaktovik caught only three. Etok’s agreement with the whaling cops allows a catch of sixty whales a year on the North Slope, and this year they didn’t get close. Still, three whales for Kaktovic is a lot of mucousy meat and blood.

Akootchook is nervous. For the Inupiat, whaling is not a Cultural Experience; it’s an Eating Experience. They really, truly survive by taking whales, a few polar bears (only those, the chief assures me, who have attitude problems), seal, moose, and Rudolf the Red-nosed Caribou. They aren’t fighting offshore drilling to preserve their lifestyle, but to preserve their lives.

If the whales, bears, and fish are scared off by Big Oil’s filth machines, there will simply be no way for Etok’s people to remain in the Arctic, at least not living as Inupiat. Some would stay on to man the port-a-potty concessions for the oil roustabout crews, or work the rigs themselves. Most would have to abandon their homes and go south, where they will get port-a-potty jobs in warmer climes.

They have no desire to don the BP suits with the little oil barrels on the badges I saw in Baku, to work the petroleum plantation. They don’t want to end up as hired hands on their own land. The Inupiat don’t need to be tamed.

Etok’s message to the Queen to take BP’s rigs and shove them has a price tag. The Eskimos are unique in having won oil royalty payments, so their choice to block the drilling will cost them easily a billion dollars, roughly a mil- lion per family.

I told Etok, “OK, you tell Her Royal Highness, on camera, what you think of BP’s plan, but only if I get a bowl of mikiaq.” Unfortunately, Mutti had just made some. Her face lit up with the opportunity to bring in a big plastic bucket of the greenish chewy whale meat hunks. It sits in a kind of mucous jelly and comes accompanied by a pan of congealed blood. Blood is unexpectedly sweet (vampires have a point), but whale—maybe the idea of it—nearly caused me to commit the social faux pas of vomiting on my hosts. 


Look at me, I’m Jonah! Inside the carcass of a beast bigger than most New York apartments. I’ve never walked around inside my lunch before. This thing is impressive. And what is most impressive is the smell. But then, I can’t imagine what I smell like inside.

Akootchook had taken us out by skiff to the pile of bones and blubber. And under the roof beams made by the rib cage, I attached wires to Etok for a formal on-camera interview inside the skeleton.

I was afraid that, like most people, once the camera is running, Etok would become a scaredy-cat, a weakling, all polite and National Geographic.

I opened the interview with what I thought was a reasonable question. “Etok, sir, I understand that you claim that drilling oil here endangers your tribe’s lifestyle. But it seems that your lifestyle is, basically, just killing endangered species and eating them. Why should U.S. and British consumers sup- port that?”


Whoa, there! No one had ever called me “redneck” before. I tried it a different way. “Sir, you claim that the Natives ‘own’ this property. I brought this up with

Alaska Governor Hickel, who said, ‘Just because your great-uncle chased a moose across some wilderness doesn’t mean you own . . .’”


Director James had his head below his knees. It had been a long, expensive journey to get completely unusable film. I asked Etok if he might repeat the last answer with a couple less cocksuckers in it.


Rick’s hands were freezing to the lens. He’d be leaving lots of skin on it, but he wouldn’t complain. The sun was turning red-orange on the ice and the whale was smelling even worse.

British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell have already purchased the con- cession for the oil under these whale bones from the U.S. Department of the Interior. How would Etok get around that?


Oh yes we did—in court. Etok’s uncle, claiming ownership of the minerals in Inupiat waters, sued the Department of the Interior in 1969. However, the federal government waved the sales receipt from the Russian Czar for all of Alaska. The judge bounced the Natives’ case out on its ass. Etok’s uncle then led a war party in a blockade of the Trans-Alaska Highway used in the pipe- line’s construction. The ice-road truckers simply drove around the Eskimo tollbooth.

The blood on the whale bones turned a darker red as the light dimmed. Etok expounded on Her Majesty’s relationship to Alaska and British Petroleum. He noted that the Queen of England had knighted the Governor of Alaska, “that cocksucker [Tony] Knowles,” after the Governor approved the BP seizure of half of the Prudhoe Bay oil field.

Ricardo, shooting from a distance as he strolled (and I slid) through the blubber, was gesturing to check if all was A-OK. Well, if our director’s suicide is OK, then, yes. We got back into Akootchook’s boat. 

Alaska has always been about its energy resources. Whale oil, then coal, then crude oil. Abraham Lincoln’s mean little Secretary of State Seward was no fool in buying “Seward’s Folly.” Seward recognized that Alaska represented liquid gold. To travel the Great Circle route to the Orient, U.S. warships and traders would need to re-provision along the way, filling whale-oil lamps against the Arctic night, and later, take on coal, then crude, for combustion-engine battle

cruisers. White people’s need for whale oil far outlived Herman Melville. The first

automobile transmissions required whale oil. Today, the best stuff, a liquid cut out of the brains and foreheads of sperm whales, is used for high-altitude components directing intercontinental ballistic missiles. Whale is used as a preservative for billionaire’s trophy wives: blubber in high-fashion makeup, and ambergris in the most expensive perfumes.

It’s interesting to note that when white people needed whale oil, no one gave a shit how many of these thoughtful mammals were hacked apart and melted.

Pity there was none. . . . He must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all. 

According to Chief Akootchook, the wildlife cops were radio-tagging and relocating the bears because they got in the way of drilling. Just like the Natives, the bears had to get the hell off the industry’s real estate. His line about the tagging might have been bullshit, so we decided to take a look for ourselves. Akootchook’s seventeen-foot runabout had a 150-hp engine strong enough to rip through the thickening layer of ice to another sand spit. Inside the boat, the Native had stowed a rusted, antique Winchester, that really old type from the cowboy movies. You can’t stop a bear with that, Chief. “Don’t have to. If a bear charges, I just have to stop you.” The Jay Leno of the Arctic. Rick, James, and I hopped to the sand spit with Akootchook to film two polar bears just jerking around in the water near the beach, hugging each other, rolling around on their backs. One got curious and walked out, strolling toward our camera fixed to a tripod, sniffing. Then he got too curious. Our host said emphatically, “Get back behind me right now!—but move slow.” The bear headed toward us. He did not seem menacing, but this fucker weighed more than all four of us combined.

Akootchook cocked the Winchester, just like Wyatt Earp, and fired. I don’t like gunfire. Never have. The bear stopped, turned, and loped away, looking back at us like, “Hey, dudes, you should chill.”

We moved quick to the boat. So did the bear. Oh, mama. This was not National Geographic. We scrambled into the skiff, and Akootchook backed it up as the bear came up and stared. Then Akootchook said those magic words, “I’ve lost steering.” I have a little boat just like this one. So I calmly (hysterically, actually) shouted, “Unbolt the cables from the helm and move the motor with your hands!” I grabbed and gunned the throttle while the Chief manhandled the outboard.

Obviously, we did not drift, dehydrate, and die in the Arctic Ocean; how doesn’t matter. I came away from the incident with one happy thought: James had forgotten his satellite phone and hospital-in-a-bag. But I did turn on Ricardo, a man who has held his camera steady under fire in Iraq. “Shit, man, I’m disappointed in you, abandoning your camera. We can always get another cameraman, but not another shot like that.”

Rick was (mildly) glum, “You can’t be as disappointed with me as I am with myself.” 

To be continued on AlterNet tomorrow. 

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